Making academic publication more meaningful and sustainable
Willy A Renandya, 3 July 2022
I read with great interest the two essays written by Wang Yi and Zuwati Hasim, in which they reflected on their scholarly publishing experiences during their doctoral studies and also after they have completed their studies.
Their reflections appeared in an edited book “Narratives of PhD qualitative research: Identities, languages and cultures in transition“.
Their essays bear testimony to the fact that while academic publishing can be quite challenging for beginning researchers, the process can be joyful and the product (e.g., the published articles) can be extremely rewarding.
The feeling of joy is amplified when the paper is published in a good journal and is widely read and cited by members of the academic community. I have nothing but genuine admiration for both Wang Yi and Zuwati Hasim for having acquired, in a relatively short period of time, the knowledge and skills needed to participate actively in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in their respective areas of specialization.
What follows are a few thoughts I have on how academic publishing can be made more meaningful, rewarding and sustainable.
Research and publication focus
There is a tendency for early career researchers to explore a wide range of topics before they finally settle on one or two research topics that they are passionate about and that link more directly to their specific teaching contexts. In my early years, for example, I tended to focus on research topics that I happened to stumble upon in my reading, or those topics that happened to be popular during a particular time. It was very much later that I started to zoom in on a couple of topics and to delve more deeply into these topics. My research focus for the past two decades or so has been mostly to do with second language reading/listening pedagogy, more specifically on extensive reading and listening. I have published on other topics, but the bulk of my publication is on extensive reading and listening.
I have developed some level of expertise in these two research topics, have written quite extensively in these two areas, have been actively involved in promoting extensive reading and listening in schools and universities throughout Asia and have also given numerous invited workshops, seminars and international conferences (e.g., ASIATEFL, KOTESOL, CATESOL and IATEFL).
I must say that my research and publication experience has been personally and professionally meaningful and rewarding. This is particularly true when my work is appreciated by the TESOL community; and even more so, when my work has an impact on policy decisions which often lead to a real change in the classroom. A case in point was my involvement as consultant of the new English language syllabus in Singapore. Extensive reading is now given a prominent place in the syllabus and a lot more teachers have now become more aware of the importance of incorporating pleasure reading in their teaching.
A quick look at Yi and Zuwati’s research and publication portfolios from their Orcid accounts shows that Yi has tended to be more focused; a substantial number of her publications are related to her PhD thesis, i.e., learner autonomy. Zuwati on the other hand is less so as only a small number of her later publications are related to her PhD research (i.e., L2 writing and formative assessment).
It is hard to say whether one should stay with the same research topics or explore a wider range of topics. Both are valid approaches to participating in the academic publishing world. But my sense is that at some point in our career, we all wish to be known as a scholar with a specific expertise within the area of applied linguistics. This can be achieved when we stay focused and keep on researching and writing on a topic for a longer period of time. Applied linguistic scholars such as Li Wei and Suresh Canagarajah who are known for their excellent work in the area of translanguaging, for example, must have spent years researching and writing about this topic. Similarly, in the area of L2 vocabulary learning, we have top scholars such as Paul Nation and Averil Coxhead.
For many early-career researchers, research impact often means publishing in top tier journals such as Applied Linguistics, Language Learning or TESOL Quarterly. Publishing in these journals has numerous benefits as these journals are highly regarded in the field of applied linguistics and language education. Some of the most important benefits of publishing in well-regarded journals include: (1) Higher visibility of their published work as these journals appear in the prestigious databases such as SSCI and Scopus; (2) Higher potential of their work being read and cited by other scholars; (3) Strong evidence to their current or future employers of their scholarship and research impact.
However, at some point in their career, they will need to broaden the readership of their research and reach out to people beyond academia. Publishing in highly ranked journals is good but our publication is usually accessible to only a small group of academics who happen to be researching the same topics. If we truly want to see the impact of our scholarly work (see Nguyen and Renandya, 2020, for an extended discussion on research impact), we will need to make our research accessible and available to policy makers, curriculum developers, materials writers, practitioners (teachers) and where possible, the general public. This often means publishing our work in the more practice oriented journals, the kinds of journals more likely to be read by classroom teachers (e.g., ELT Journal, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Forum), writing a high impact policy paper which synthesizes key research findings and provides clear, specific and actionable recommendations; and hosting workshops for teachers, curriculum specialists and materials writers to discuss how our research findings could be incorporated in their work.
Nothing could be more rewarding than to see our work find its way to our intended audience. In my case, the target audience of my research and publications are mostly language teachers and language teacher educators. I find it professionally fulfilling when a language teacher comes to me and say “I use your book in my teaching”.
Increasing the visibility of our published work
In the past, researchers left it to the publisher to promote their published work. These days, they work with their publishers to make their work more visible and accessible to the intended audience (Tuley, 2019). Big publishers such as Elsevier and Sage offer tips and strategies for researchers to promote their work. Some of the tips include the use of social media such as FB, Twitter, Blogs or online repositories (e.g., Academia.edu and ResearchGate to spread the word about their published work.
Many academics however may cringe at the idea of promoting their work to the public via social media. They don’t feel comfortable ‘boasting’ their achievement for fear of being perceived as arrogant. But taking pride in our achievement and sharing our work with others, in today’s world, should be seen as a normal part of our professional life. We just need to learn how to publicize our work without sounding boastful.
Also, in light of the fact that uncited research is not uncommon, making our research more visible and accessible may just increase the probability of our research being read and cited by other researchers. Estimates of uncited research vary quite a bit, but one estimate suggests that the number can be as high as 25% in the sciences (Noordin, 2017). The figure is likely to be higher for the humanities or linguistics, and much higher if our research is published in less known journals.
In recent years, I make it a point to share my published work with other scholars via my FB groups, Academia.edu and my personal website. More recently, I also share my work with my circle of professional network via direct contact (e.g., via email, Whatsapp, WeChat and Line). Does this promotional effort work? Although I don’t have hard evidence to support my claim that it works, I feel that the readership of my published research has increased quite a bit. People often write to me to say that they get to know my publications through my FB posts, website and popular online repositories such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate.
Publish and flourish, not perish!
The ‘publish and perish’ culture has indeed contributed to the growth of scientific knowledge and continued to be highly valued in higher education, especially in research intensive universities where research often takes priority over teaching. In these universities, research faculty who do not have sufficient publications in top tier journals in the first seven years or so may not get tenured and may have to leave their job.
While the publish and perish culture may work well with some academics, others may find the academic pressure too stressful to handle. Some may take a short cut, publishing their work in journals of questionable quality (known as predatory journals), or worse, resort to plagiarizing other scholars’ work. This of course is unhealthy and will only perpetuate the negative perception that publishing is the ultimate goal of demonstrating one’s competence and scholarship.
It is much healthier, especially for early career researcher, to nurture a more positive outlook about research and publication. They should engage in research because it is an important part of their identity as an academic, and publish their research because it is meaningful for them and also for the intended audience.
In a panel discussion on “Publishing with mainstream language journals” hosted by Thammasat University and Thailand TESOL in 2020, the panel members agreed that “Early-career academics, in particular, should be entering the field with positivity and optimism. Instead of “publish or perish,” individuals, institutions, journals, and publishers should work together to promote an attitude of “publish and flourish” (Goh, 2020) (Yeo, et al., 2021, p. 9)”.
I too would whole-heartedly endorse the culture of publish and flourish. It is when we see research and publication as a process of finding our academic and professional identity that we can truly grow and flourish.
As Yi and Zuwita pointed out, academic publishing is hard but doable. More importantly, it provides an excellent opportunity to develop a new skill set that allows them to engage with the academic community in a way that is both meaningful and rewarding. The next steps in their publication journey can be even more meaningful and sustainable when they further deepen their expertise in their areas of specialization and widen the reach of their research by making it available and accessible to a wider group of people.
Finally, I must commend Yi and Zuwita’s supervisors, whose encouragement, guidance and emotional support must have made the publication process more manageable and enjoyable.
Nguyen M.T.T., Renandya W.A. (2020) Growing Our Research Impact. In: Coombe C., Anderson N.J., Stephenson L. (eds) Professionalizing Your English Language Teaching. Second Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 337-348). Springer, Cham.
Yeo, M. A., Renandya, W.A., Tangkiengsirisin, S. (2021). Re-envisioning Academic Publication: From “Publish or Perish” to “Publish and Flourish”, RELC Journal.